Just hundred metres separate the houses of Nandesh and his wife Swathi in Soodagondapalli near Hosur in Krishnagiri district. But no matter how close they were – as neighbours, then lovers and finally as a married couple – their castes loomed over their relationship at every step.
Last week, newly-weds Nandesh, a Dalit man and Swathi, a dominant caste Vanniyar woman, were brutally murdered; their bodies were found floating near the Shivanasamudra Falls in Karnataka’s Mandya district, over 150 km from Hosur. Their killers had tied the couple’s hands and legs before dumping them into the water. Their bodies bore several injury marks, their faces were burnt beyond recognition. On November 13, 25-year-old Nandesh’s body was found, while the Mandya police recovered his 20-year-old wife’s body only on November 15.
And while their killers had gone to great lengths to ensure their identities remained unknown, it was Nandesh’s sky blue Ambedkar T-shirt with the words “Jai Bhim” and his village’s name “Choodagondapalli” that helped unravel the heinous caste crime.
Inside the village
In Soodagondapalli, Nandesh’s grieving family are in shock, despair writ large on their faces. Two doors down, Swathi’s home lies vacant after her father, uncle and another relative were arrested for the caste killing. The village, which is divided on caste lines with around 40 families belonging to the Vanniyar community and around 15 Dalit families, is now under a security clampdown. Anticipating caste tension following the killings, over 20 police officers patrol the village and its neighbourhood, with barricades placed on the road leading up to Soodagondapalli.
Shankar wears an identical "Jai Bheem" t-shirt that Nandesh was found in
It was Shankar, the younger brother of Nandesh, who identified his body. He says, “We couldn’t bring the body back to the village because it was so decomposed. We had to carry out the funeral there, in Mandya.”
Nandesh and Swathi’s story
Recalling how the two met, Shankar says, “They fell in love four years ago. Swathi was going to college in Krishnagiri and Nandesh used to work in Hosur. They met on the bus and fell in love.” Trouble, however, found their way when Swathi’s family got to know of their relationship two years ago. While Nandesh was allegedly beaten up by Swathi’s relatives, Shankar says, her uncle had also sent word to his family to ensure that he breaks off the relationship.
“They belong to the Vanniyar caste. Their family is into farming and they have land of their own. We are Dalits. My parents do coolie work for a living,” says Shankar. He goes on to recall that he confronted Nandesh, “I told him it won’t work out. He then agreed and told us he won’t pursue the relationship.”
“He didn’t pick up her calls for four days. She took a bus from Krishnagiri, where she was studying B.Com, to Hosur, where he worked, and asked why he didn’t like her anymore. He told her that he didn’t want the relationship and that our family is scared,” Shankar recalls, “She told him that I will only marry you, otherwise I will die. He then said, ‘ok then if we die, let’s die together’.”
Without anyone’s knowledge, the two continued their relationship for another two years. But there was trouble in store for the inter-caste couple. “Her family got wind of their relationship once again. This time, her uncle’s children came to our house and beat up my parents in the middle of the night,” says Shankar.
When Swathi completed her B.Com, she returned to her parents’ home in Soodagondapalli for four days. “I don’t know what her parents told her but it seems like they have threatened her. She then told them she was going to meet her friends in Hosur. On August 16, at Thimmarayaswamy temple at Shoolagiri they got married. After a week, they registered their wedding at Shoolagiri. We didn’t know they had gotten married, nor did her family,” Shankar says.
Nandesh’s last SOS message
While the couple took a house on rent in Hosur, both families were in limited contact with Nandesh and Swathi. Shankar says the first time he spoke to Nandesh after the wedding was on November 9. It was also the last time he ever spoke to his brother.
He had made plans to meet his brother and new sister-in-law on November 10. But it was never to be.
Nandesh worked for five years at Shiva Hardware, a tile store in Hosur. His employer, Sanjay Patel, was the was the last person to receive a message from him. The SOS message that was sent to his boss around 2 am on November 10 read, “Anna, kidnapped, in Kanakapura.”
Speaking to TNM, Sanjay says, “He left duty at 8 pm on November 9. The next morning when I checked my phone, I got a message from him saying he was kidnapped. I went to Kanakapura to check and then came back to Hosur Police Station and filed a complaint.” When asked if he was aware of the troubles in Nandesh’s house, Sanjay says, “When I asked him, he said it was his maama’s ponnu (uncle’s daughter). I didn’t ask anything further as I didn’t want to get into the private affairs of my employees.”
‘We were scared’
At the Hosur Town Police Station, a police officer says an FIR for missing person was registered following Sanjay’s complaint. “We scanned CCTV footage. The last footage we saw was of the couple leaving their house at 9.30 pm on November 10. After that, we didn’t find any footage of them,” says an officer. It was days later that the Mandya police called their Hosur counterparts, informing them of the bodies. When asked if Nandesh or Swathi or their families had come to the Hosur police, the officer says, “We received no complaints – neither from the boy’s family nor the girl’s.”
Shankar explains why his family never went to the police despite the attacks and the threats, “Amma and Appa got scared. We have only one house. We didn’t want any trouble.”
Following the murder, a number of groups, barring the Dravidian heavyweights, have come knocking on their doors, offering condolences, their help and a promise for justice. “No one has come from the DMK or the AIADMK. Our MLA has not come either,” says Shankar.
He says his family has only three demands. “They have done this out of a casteist rage. We want capital punishment for the killers. We want security for our SC people here. And this should not happen to any other family.”